Paris (CNSNews.com) - A European Union plan to lift an embargo on arms sales to China is controversial here, despite claims by European governments that they are merely seeking to recognize Asia's economic giant as a strategic partner.
U.S. opposition to the plan to end the ban by the middle of the year has been made clear, most recently by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who warned again in China Monday that the move "would not be the right signal" to send to Beijing.
But public opinion in Europe is also divided.
France has been at the forefront of the plan to lift the embargo, imposed by the union after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.
President Jacques Chirac has won the support of other major European countries, including Germany and Britain, for an E.U.-wide ending of the ban.
"As opposed to the US, European governments do not consider China as a menace or as a factor of destabilization," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the director of research on China at the CNRS Institute (National Center for Scientific Research) in Paris.
"They see China as a country in transition that is evolving toward a more important role economically and politically," Cabestan said.
However, Chirac's goal to counterbalance American power also stands out as a primary factor in the plan.
"Chirac does not see any inconvenience in siding with China on certain questions, with Russia on others, or with Germany and other European countries, to resist or oppose certain American initiatives, as was the case in the Iraq war," said Cabestan.
But although Chirac's desire to create a European power to balance that of the U.S. is shared by some European leaders, public opinion does not favor the lifting of the arms embargo.
"While there are no public opinion polls on the issue, we can measure this opposition because the European parliament has expressed its opposition and so have major political parties in some countries like the Netherlands and Germany," Cabestan said.
China's failure to make progress on human rights is the main reason behind European public opposition to resuming arms sales to China.
"Before lifting the embargo, we believe that China should be asked to recognize that in 1989 there were thousands of deaths and there was repression against the democracy movement," said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia-Pacific section of the human rights group, Reporters Without Borders.
Brossel also believes that the E.U. needs to consider what China might use the weapons for after buying them.
"China needs to guarantee, if arms sales are resumed, that these arms will not be passed from China to Sudan, to North Korea and to Burma," Brossel said.
Cabestan said European public opposition to ending the ban has been boosted by the passage of a Chinese law last week allowing the use of force against Taiwan if it moves towards independence.
"France has sold arms to Taiwan in the past - a friend. It would be paradoxical that Taiwanese French Mirage planes find themselves face to face with Chinese French Mirages, if there is a conflict," Cabestan said.
"Taiwan is a democratic country with democratic traditions, where there is freedom of speech and freedom of press," said Brossel. "When Europe sides with China against Taiwan, it is a little frightening."
For Brossel, another key concern is that NATO communications technology could be passed on to China and later used against the U.S. itself, in the event of America coming to Taiwan's aid in a future conflict.
At a mini-European summit in Paris on Friday, Chirac reiterated the E.U.'s position in favor of ending the embargo.
Meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Chirac defended the plan, saying it did not have to involve the sale of "sophisticated systems."
Proponents of ending the ban say a tightened-up "code of conduct" should placate concerns.
Some observers believe that France's arms industry is pushing the move because it is set to benefit significantly from selling arms to the world's largest military.
"France's push to convince the E.U. to lift the arms embargo was motivated by the powerful arms lobby in France and its wish to tap the Chinese market," charged Brossel. "There is an economic aim allied with the political aim."
Despite unfavorable public opinion and misgivings over China's threats against Taiwan, and in the face of strong U.S. opposition, the E.U. is likely to announce a lifting of the embargo before the end of June.
"Everyone is a little worried by the new law on Taiwan and this might have an influence, as might U.S. pressure, but the principle of ending the embargo will probably be maintained, even if it might end up a little delayed," predicted Cabestan.
Arms Embargo, Anti-Taiwan Law Key Topics as Rice Visits China (March 21, 2005)
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